The importance of process: why you may be wasting some of your spend on accessibility

Three years ago I interviewed Debra Ruh, CEO of Ruh Global Communications, at the CSUN conference in San Diego. Our conversation touched on topics like:

  • the importance of organisations hiring people with disabilities,
  • how we need to create more accessibility experts to handle the demand from organisations for their help, and
  • how organisations need to start thinking about how to market their products’ accessibility and measuring the Return on Investment of their spend on accessibility.

But one topic stood out more than anything else:

“American companies, government, universities are spending money to become accessible… But I personally believe that a lot of money is being wasted… If a company spends $250,000 to be accessible, and they get accessible, then the next month they’re not accessible any more, I believe that’s a failure for our community.
We’ve seen it happen over and over again.
We found that our federal agencies were making good traction, and then the stakeholders started retiring from those agencies and we lost all of it, because it has not been embedded at process level.
I do not believe the current compliance model is sustainable.”

Three years later Debra’s analysis is still relevant, as is our discussion of how embedding accessibility into organisations and processes, as proposed and described in British Standard BS 8878, can help. Find out more by watching the video below, or reading the transcript:

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Transcript of video

[Debra]
My husband, myself, my daughter and my son, my daughter has a disability: I’m a perfect family for corporations to pursue for me to buy their hamburgers, to buy their cars, to buy whatever.

But we cannot prove to the corporations that I will make buying decisions to buy from them as opposed to somebody else because they did or did not include people with disabilities. They did or did not make their website accessible.

So until we can define that consumer behaviour and get the data out there, even if it’s by telling one story at a time, I think we’re going to have a hard time really executing as a community – the community of people with
disabilities.

We’ve got to track that data.

[Voiceover]
Jonathan Hassell interviews Debra Ruh on getting a return on your investment in web accessibility

[Jonathan]
Today I’ve got Debra Ruh with me, a multi talented American, who’s a great advocate for people with disabilities, and for the last decade has helped multi national corporations and governments to connect effectively
to the community of people with disabilities.

So Debra, welcome. There’s so much we could talk about but let’s start with, what made you found TecAccess in 2001?

[Debra]
I come from the banking industry, and technology and eLearning and training.

My husband and I have two, now grown, children, but our oldest daughter has Downs Syndrome and in middle school she just wasn’t learning like we were hoping that she would. Her options for employment then looked very dismal and
so I thought, “I know, I’ll start a technology company, because I know technology, and I’ll employ people with disabilities. How hard can that be?”

Well, it was very hard; it was a lot harder than I thought. So my daughter Sarah was the inspiration for starting the company and still inspires me; she’s amazing and has so many gifts beyond her disability. She has a lot to contribute to the world. It’s about making sure that people can contribute with their abilities and not let their disabilities get in the way.

[Jonathan]
What sort of services did TecAccess provide to companies?

[Debra]
At first we really focused on pure Section 508 compliance. So complying to the Rehabilitation Act, and testing, training, consulting, auditing. Then as we moved forward, because I started in 2001, as it sort of evolved and the international community started joining the conversation – or maybe I should say, America started listening to the international community. We made it broader, and we started focussing certainly on what was happening with W3C and WCAG and getting engaged in the 508 refresh. Really focussing on making every bit of ICT accessible from the web to hardware to software, we did all those different types of projects.

[Jonathan]
The point of that was to make sure that everyone could use it?

[Debra]
Absolutely. 80% of my team were people with severe disabilities. So I had people on the team that were blind and deaf and hard of hearing and traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy and it was just a very diverse group of technologists.

[Jonathan]
You won… The amount of awards that seemed to rain on TecAccess. Just two I picked out: the 2005 Presidential Freedom Initiative Award, the 2005 Lighthouse International Employer of the Year for hiring people with vision impairments. 2005 sounded like a really good year.

[Debra]
I did all this amazing work, I won all these awards. But after it was all said and done, except for the people I employed myself, did I change the world? Did the needle move to help more people with disabilities get employed because we were making websites accessible? Unfortunately the answer was no.

[Jonathan]
A couple of years ago you merged TecAccess into SSB Bart Group, you took on the role of the chief marketing officer for them. So handing marketing, communications, all of those sorts of things, for one of the largest American accessibility companies.

That must have given you a lot of insight into the organisations you were working for, what they thought about accessibility, why it was important for them.

[Debra]
I believe that the way that we change this topic and really make it better, at least partially, is with the marketing and communications, really building the awareness. So it was interesting to take on that role and get engaged not only
with multi national corporations and fortune 500 companies here in the US. But also I started engaging a lot more with foreign governments that were trying to implement the UN convention on the rights for people with disabilities, or were thinking about it or ratifying it.

There’s still so much confusion about this topic. And of course you get different cultures and you have different types of confusion associated with it. It’s a multi dimensional opportunity/problem.

What has happened, not only in the US it’s happened in the UK as well and in Europe, is that we took a fear based approach. “If you don’t do it we’re going to sue you and you’d better follow the line.” It’s
real fear based. So it’s like, “You’d better comply.” We know that people don’t change behaviours because of fear, they might change behaviours temporarily because of fear.

When Target got sued and it went into a class action lawsuit, I got multiple large companies that came to me because of that lawsuit. I remember one company that I had been courting for years and they came to me specifically because of it because they said, “We know we’re a target.”

The reality in the United States is that large corporations get sued all the time. There are troublesome lawsuits, there are lawsuits that are not valid, we are a very litigious society. We put our laws on books and then we pound our laws out by suing each other, that has caused us problems in America. It’s become very fear based, “You’d better be compliant, you’d better be accessible or the community of people with disabilities are going to get you.” The sort of
‘who wants to be a millionaire?’ let me pick which corporation I’m going to sue.

Even the National Federation of the Blind, which has done a lot of amazing things. They started having some branding issues because people started seeing them as the person that whips everybody, and they’re so much more than that. You don’t want to create a situation where you cause people to get further from each other. Sometimes when we do sensitivity training in the US, it sometimes causes a bigger divide, because I say to you, “You’re going to employ people with disabilities, you need to make sure your website’s accessible for people with disabilities. So now I’m going to give you a training class and I’m going to teach you how to speak to a person with a disability.” It scares people and they start thinking things like, “I’m not allowed to say the word ‘see’ around a blind person because a blind person can’t see.” So what happens is all you can think about is using the word ‘see’, it’s all you can think about.

It’s common sense stuff. You don’t want things to separate us, you want to pull together.

And unfortunately with the way we’ve been working with accessibility, that’s what we’ve done. We’ve complicated it. And we’ve caused some divisions. And a lot of corporations feel like, they do not know what to do. And they don’t know how to place this community. They’re terrified of this community.

[Jonathan]
That’s a reasonable reaction on their part.

More recently you left SSB Bart to concentrate on your work at Ruh Global. Can you tell me what the main emphasis of that work is?

[Debra]
Yes, SSB was wonderful to me but I love being on my own and being the captain of my own fate. So I stepped back out in the beginning of the year and created Ruh Global.

The reason why I put ‘Global’ on there is because there’s a lot of work being done in the US, but I think it’s very important that we look at it from an international perspective. It’s the only way that we’re going to be successful.

It’s really about marketing, communications and strategy. How do we make sure we’re including people with disabilities in every aspect, in the most appropriate way for those people; the cultures, the countries, taking everything into consideration. Also I believe that this community of people with disabilities, and all the stakeholders that are part of it, we need to have a better voice, a more active voice, a less silo-ed voice. We need to do a better job of actually documenting consumer behaviour.

The United States, like other countries are very economics driven and we will say in the US to corporations, “There are 54 million Americans and we control $ billions and 1 in 3 households are impacted.” But what we can’t prove is that a family that has a person with a disability like my family – my husband, myself, my daughter and my son, my daughter has a disability: I’m a perfect family for corporations to pursue for me to buy their hamburgers, to buy their cars, to buy whatever. But we cannot prove to the corporations that I will make buying decisions to buy from them as opposed to somebody else, because they did or did not include people with disabilities. They did or did not make their website accessible. So until we can define that consumer behaviour and get the data out there, even if it’s by telling one story at a time, I think we’re going to have a hard time really executing as a community – the community of people with disabilities. We’ve got to track that data.

[Jonathan]
I’m interested in what you think the strengths and weaknesses are of the accessibility market here in the US. How would you characterise the market at the moment?

[Debra]
The good news about the market is that American companies, government agencies, universities are spending money to become accessible. We have seen, even over the last six months, the amount of people that are spending money on accessibility has really risen to the point that we’re having problems finding qualified people to actually do the work.

Most of the companies are small. The biggest company out there is probably $8 million a year, so these are still baby companies when you think of the $ billion companies that we’re servicing.

The bad news is, there’s not enough qualified people to do the work because we have really complicated things. With TecAccess we would go into these corporations and we would test and we would tell them what was wrong. We’d help them fix it, we would encourage them to put it in their processes, but they didn’t. Then as soon as we left they were out of compliance again and they weren’t accessible. That was discouraging because, of course it’s great that they’re spending money but you want them to have sustainable solutions.

So it was becoming apparent to me that the way that we were doing it was not going to be sustainable. American companies are trying to comply, they’re looking at it as compliance, they’re trying to reduce their risk of litigation.
American companies understand,“This issue is not going to go away, so you’d better do something about it.”

They’re actually spending money, and it’s good money, they’re spending good solid money to for profit companies to do this.

[Jonathan]
But what’s missing, if you like is that ability to embed the right practices, the right processes within those organisations.

[Debra]
Right! I personally believe that a lot of money is being wasted. So if a company spends $250,000 to be accessible, and they get accessible, then the next month they’re not accessible any more, I believe that’s a failure for our community. I think it’s a major failure, and we’ve seen it happen over and over again. We found that our federal agencies were getting traction, and then the stakeholders started retiring from those agencies and we lost all
of it, because it has not been embedded at a process level. It’s great we’re harmonising with W3C, that’s all great, but it’s still compliance. And I do not believe it’s sustainable.

[Jonathan]
I’ve brought across the process-driven approach that I created initially in British Standard BS 8878. What is it about that standard that you think is going to be of real value to industry?

[Debra]
The thing that I really like about it is the only standard that I’ve seen that actually encourages the change at the process level, at the design level. It encourages the testing, the quality assurance and the compliance.

If we can’t embed it, that’s such a good word, because if we cannot embed it at the process level we will keep doing what we’re doing now. We’ll try and then we’ll kick ourselves out, we’ll try, then we’re out of compliance, we’ll try.

But if you can make it part of the design, which those standards do, then we can have success.

You put it in the hands of the designers, and the people that are adding content and, that’s the only way that you’re going to be successful.

I used to think that maybe we weren’t being successful because we weren’t teaching accessibility in our universities. You can graduate as a web designer or a web master and not know anything about accessibility.
But then even that, if we don’t blend it in at the process level, it doesn’t matter whether I teach you or not, because I’ve complicated it so much.

It’s all about perfection. Even with the Section 508 law, the government will say, “Are you 508 compliant, yes or no?”

All the time. It is not a yes or no question. But the government themselves don’t understand it, it is not a yes or no. Even with W3C, the WCAG – you wrote a brilliant blog about that – you really are throwing the baby out with the bathwater the way we’re doing it today.

An example I use all the time is security and privacy. Are you going to build a website or anything else, a software application, that doesn’t have security and privacy built into it? Well, nobody is going to buy your product if you do;
it’s ludicrous to say that.

If it’s not built in at the process level we are going to continue not to be successful, which I believe is what’s happened. We’ve got to change the conversation.

And that’s why I like the British standards, because you can actually do that. It gives something that they could actually implement it and make it part of their process. And then they could track it to make sure it remained part of the process.

[Jonathan]
So even though it’s a British standard, it actually has application here in the States.

[Debra]
I believe it has major application in the States. If it was taken to the corporations they wouldn’t care where it came from. It would be something that they could implement. We have got to make it so that they can actually implement it. And right now we’re not doing that, what we’re doing is one-off projects.

We’ve really got to help corporations and universities and actually embed it in the process or we’re going to continue to not really have the tipping point that we need to have to move this forward. We’ve complicated it so much that people can’t be successful, and so who loses are the people with disabilities and the people that are ageing and acquiring disabilities.

So the big threat is that we continue to do that and make it worse and worse and worse, and create a bigger digital divide. So I think it’s already here and I think it’s been going on for years, and it’s getting worse. As the accessibility experts and gurus and thought leaders openly fight with each other about this it broadens that digital divide a little bit more and a little bit more. The losers are people with disabilities, especially severe disabilities and people that are ageing.

We’re already starting to see that happen significantly.

[Jonathan]
Would it be true to say that the corporations themselves are losing as well, because they’re losing customers?

[Debra]
Yes, the corporations are losing and the corporations are so confused. They’re so confused and there are some programs, some products/services out there that tell the corporations, “All you have to do is do this one little thing and you’re done.” And the corporations do it and so they’re putting themselves at greater risk. We have this little bit of ‘buyer beware’ circumstances. Corporations are spending good money to do this thinking that they’re getting the right advice, because they don’t understand it because we’ve complicated it. So yes, we all lose, everybody’s losing.

Some people believe that the way to correct this is to put more laws on the books, and I so disagree with that. Because we don’t comply to the laws that are in our books today, so adding more laws are just going to be more
laws that we don’t comply to.

Instead we need to embed this at the process level and it’s really not that complicated to do that.

The British standard is a wonderful example, just get everybody a copy of that and let’s do it.

[Jonathan]
Debra Ruh, thank you very much, it’s great to talk with you.

[Debra]
Thank you, I’m looking forward to the book.

[Voiceover]
This interview is one of 16 filmed to contribute to my book ‘Including your missing 20% by embedding web and mobile accessibility’.
The book provides a full guide on how to transform your organisation to achieve the consistent creation of web sites and mobile apps that are usable and accessible to all your customers, at the most efficient cost.
Find out more about the book by visiting hassellinclusion.com/book.

[Voiceover]
Did you like this video? If so, why not share it with your friends.
And I’ve got many more videos on the way, with other accessibility experts from all over the world.
So make sure you don’t miss them, by subscribing to my channel. Thanks so much for watching.

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